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The 100th Anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

During the Great War, the Reverend David Railton witnessed first-hand the brutality of combat. As a British Military Chaplain along the Western Front, he officiated at the burials of countless unidentified soldiers. It was a chance encounter passing a soldier’s grave in France, however, that sparked an idea that would eventually lead to the creation of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey in London.

Rev. David Railton

In 1916, Railton was walking through a back garden at Erkingham, near Armentières in France, when he saw a rough cross on which were penciled the words, “An Unknown British Soldier.” Knowing that many other graves held the remains of young soldiers whose final resting place would never be known, Railton had an idea. After the war, he returned home and wrote to Herbert Ryle, the Dean of Westminster Abbey. He suggested a permanent memorial to those who had fallen in the Great War. Through his determination and persistence, Railton’s idea started to take root.

In November 1920, as the second anniversary of the signing of the Armistice approached, plans got underway to honor the unknown war dead by burying one unidentified soldier at a special memorial in Westminster Abbey. He would represent all those who died for their country, but whose burial place was not known, or whose body remained unidentified. Although accounts vary, it is generally believed that on November 7, 1920, between four and six bodies were exhumed from battlefields along the Western Front and transported to a church in northern France. The commander of British troops in France chose one soldier, and his body was placed in a coffin and covered with a flag that Railton had used as an altar cloth during the war. That same flag, known as the Ypres or Padre’s flag, now hangs in St. George’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey. The other bodies were reburied.

In a show of respect, Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander during the war, offered a long and solemn salute as the coffin left the shores of France. The HMS Verdun transported the casket to Dover. From Dover, the casket was placed in a railcar and ceremoniously transported to London. Large and solemn crowds greeted the train as it arrived at Victoria Station.

The coffin of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, November 1920

On November 11, 1920, a procession followed the coffin of the Unknown Warrior. They first went to the Cenotaph, where King George V unveiled the new war memorial on Whitehall in London. Then, with the King joining the procession, they followed the coffin to Westminster Abbey, where the unknown soldier was ceremoniously laid to rest. Within a week, more than a million people visited the site to pay their respects. The Guardian, a London newspaper, noted that every mourner envisioned the unknown soldier as his or her family member. The tomb is inscribed with the following text, “They buried him among the kings, because he had done good toward God and toward his house.”

Remembrance Day 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. If you would like to search our international WWI military records, see collections from the United Kingdom; United States; Canada; Australia; and New Zealand on Fold3.

29 Comments

  1. Deanna Ray says:

    Thank you for publishing this for all of us so we will not forget this history My hero came home from his 3 wars “ Carrying his shield not on it.” God was not through with him yet We know now with DNA. there there won’t be any more “that will be known only to God”

  2. Patricia Morlen says:

    Thank You this story brought tears to my eyes. GOD BLESS our soldiers we Thank them and their families for the sacrifices they make for our safety and freedom.

  3. Mark Ryan says:

    Unknown but not forgotten. A salute to all who served.

  4. Cynthia Sanborn says:

    Blessings to all our soldiers, we are so blessed in our United States.

  5. Bonnie says:

    Thank you for publishing this Remembrance Day . I read with tears in my eyes, & sadness in heart for all the parents whose child/soldier never came home again, not a word or sighting of him. My uncle was killed in Normandy, France in July 1944. He could have been the unknown soldier . He was lost and found. His father (my grandfather) insisted he be returned to US to be buried close to home. I’m always grateful that we can visit his gravesite.

  6. Maggie says:

    Thank you for sharing this story. With this election I turned my sites to watching movies about WW2. My grandfather, two uncles, and my dad were fortunate to survive the war also my grandfather survived WW1. Arlington National Cemetery having graves we do know who the military are that buried we know; it is only stands to reason we should have a monument for the ones that are unknown.

  7. Judith Larmeu says:

    Thank you Fold 3 for posting these stories. I have learned a lot about history in general, not just family history, and that is so special to me. Also, I share certain stories with the members of our antique car club who also appreciate hearing this information. I am a proud Fold3 member and have a memorial in my father’s, husband’s (still living), and father-in-law’s names.

  8. Christine Siegert says:

    Thank you. May we never forget their sacrifices.

  9. William Martin says:

    Thank you for offering this story. You might also publish a story about the American Chapel in St. Paul’s in London.

  10. Ann Breedlove says:

    This is so touching!

    Three years ago, I was able to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cem. in Virginia, USA. This was something that I had wanted to do for many, many years. Your Tomb of the Unknown Warrior pays homage to those men who fought and died, but never were returned to their homes because they were unidentified! The verse that is on your monument is very emotional for me, and I think that it is the perfect verse to characterize your “Unknown Warriot”!

  11. Jerry DeHay says:

    Excellent history lesson that helps us once again consider the consequences of war and proper reverence toward those who made the supreme sacrifice for our freedom. Lest we forget after 100 years we should pray for all who stand in harm’s way on our behalf today.

    • Laura T Edge says:

      Well said, Jerry. This article was a good reminder of the sacrifices so many have made for our freedom.

  12. Donald Ray Cobb says:

    As a Navy D-Day veteran of Omaha Beach, Normandy, and now as a father, grandfather, and great grandfather, this article is emotional to me in several ways. Twice in recent years, I have walked through the American cemetery at Coleville sur Mur, Normandy. I have also witnessed the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington. I am thankful that people still care.

  13. Dennis M. Maloney says:

    It is very important for all of us to be reminded of the men and women who gave their lives for their country. It is just as important to remember all the soldiers who have suffered physical and emotional problems because of the trauma of war. Peace to all!

  14. George Gatliff says:

    And I cried.

  15. Charly Wiliamse says:

    Informative article
    I was searching for this information on google

  16. Arlene says:

    What a tribute. Tears fill my eyes. Thank you for sharing.

  17. ~ Thank You ~ Beautiful Tribute ~ Soldiers that will never be forgotten because of your story ~ God Bless them all ~ <3 ~

  18. Barbara Ann Miller says:

    Thank you for publishing this article. It has a way of bring tears into one’s eyes as it is being read. Those who gave it all are true heroes.

  19. Ronald R Smith II says:

    Thank you for the story. Thank you, these unknown men and women soldier’s commitment’s to a greater good. I have a choice and I choose to work through their memory.

  20. Paul Clayson says:

    Thank you for this story. I am sure we are all thankful for the idea by Rev. David Railton. I have visited quite a few WW1 cemeteries on the western front and have seen a lot of graves, marked “An Unknown British Soldier” and I thank all of the persons buried in these cemeteries for their service.
    I have visited in the Grave for the unknown soldier in Canberra and also on the 27th April 2018 the Adelaide Cemetery, Villers Bretonneux, France, where his body was taken from back to Australia.
    But I have not yet been to the grave for the unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey, but it is on my bucket list. One day when this pandemic is over, I will get there.

  21. Duncan MacKinnon says:

    When I am in Paris, France I make a point to visit the ceremony recognizing the unknown soldier buried under the arch at the Arc de Triumph. The daily ceremony at 6:30 pm is usually attended by school children from France and abroad.

  22. Karen Cloutier-Long says:

    Thank you for reminding us about the sacrifices made by all who lived through the horrors of whatever wars being fought. My father, great-uncle, aunt, father-in-law, husband’s uncle, and all others I do not know personally that made it back safely are heros in my eyes. All veterans in what ever war, police action, conflict, basically war actions in the past or now are heros in my eyes. THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart.

  23. I have been researching mine and my wife’s military forebears reaching back into the 19th century and have lost 9 members in conflict between us, some have no know grave so to honour them we have visited the tomb in Westminster to pay our respects. It is a very moving and quiet moment that every person who has lost someone to conflict with no know grave will understand we will remember them.

  24. Barb & Ed Curtindale says:

    a heart rendering story. I have had the privilege to visit this spot in Westminster many years ago while on a tour. May all soldiers known and unknown rest in peace with thanks and appreciation from all of us still above the sod, here in the USA in Europe and the UK.

  25. Rev. Railton is buried near here.

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/doffcocker/albums/72157665618280333

    His grave is within a few yards of the main A82 road so very easy to find.

    He was killed in 1955 when he fell from a moving train.

    MB

  26. Martin Briscoe says:

    American readers might not be aware of the tradition that every Royal bride either places her wedding bouquet on the Grave of the Unknown Soldier or arranges for it to be placed there if she is not married in Westminster Abbey.

    The tradition was started by the present Queen’s mother who lost a number of close family members of her family in WWI.

  27. Karen Pauli says:

    This has gotten me thinking. It’s truly remarkable what we can do today with DNA to identify a body, but even more so how an average person can get their DNA tested and recorded for genealogy purposes , and how many are also getting relatives and friends tested as well. There is quite a large database out there by now, and it’s getting bigger all the time. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the graves marked “unknown” could be disinterred and a sample taken (if possible) for testing? Even if a match isn’t found, one might show up in the future. More importantly, these unknown soldiers could at least have their names back! Doubt if it will ever happen though, due to the time and money involved. Still, it’s something to think about.